Sunday, March 3, 2019

Luke 4.1-13: Tempted by What...or Whom

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Rome? According to Renaissance superstar painter Sandro Botticelli that seems to be the case. In the fresco he painted as a trial for working in the Sistine Chapel, Botticelli crafted a large-scale scene that included all three temptations of Jesus (Luke 4:1-13). In addition, we see a leper healed by Jesus, the High Priest who will perform the ritual cleansing, a young man carrying a basin of water, one woman bringing two birds and another woman bringing wood - all of which would be used in the cleansing. And in the upper parts of the fresco are three scenes with Jesus.
Sandro Botticelli. Temptations of Christ. 1481-82. Sistine Chapel, Vatican.
At left is the first temptation: to turn stones to bread. In the center is Jesus at the pinnacle of the "Temple" (or the pinnacle of Santa Maria in Transpontina in Rome -  in its medieval church that was destroyed and replaced in the 16th century). At the right is the final temptation where the devil is given his comeuppance.

For the most part the temptations resemble other depictions. One of the interesting details is the appearance of the devil. Though unmasked in the final scene (upper right), in the other two (stones and top of the temple) the devil appears as a medieval hermit. Why? What might that mean?
And this is not the only time that the temptations have come to Jesus via a hermit. In the 1965 movie "The Greatest Story Ever Told," the temptation scene takes place in a cave to which Jesus has climbed. The temptations are put before Jesus by the devil in the guise of a hermit (played by Donald Pleasence).

Do these depictions honor hermits or criticize them? In each of the episodes in the paintings, there is at least a small element of the true character of the "hermit" visible. A bird-like talon foot peeks out from under a robe. Skeletal wings emerge from the hermit's back. We know who this really is. We are not fooled. The question is whether Jesus will be. 

Not everyone believed the eremitic life to be a wholesome approach to the Christian life. Bernard of Clarivaux wrote in a letter (Letter LIII to "Another Holy Virgin of the Convent of S. Mary of Troyes"): If one would live in an evil manner, the desert brings abundant opportunity...The evil that no one sees, no one reproves. Where no critic is feared, there the tempter gains easier access, there wickedness is more readily committed

Does Botticelli understand the devil - the fallen angel - as a hermit who has given in to the temptations that plague the solitary Christian and now seeks to tempt others? Is Botticelli reminding us that it's too easy to believe that temptations are spotted as wrong choices from half a mile away? Does the hermit symbolize the idea that more often temptations come disguised as a "good"? Do we learn from this that Jesus alone in the wilderness was no more immune from temptation than any other religious solitary?

The end result mirrors scripture as Jesus resists temptation by quoting scripture, and the devil falls off the mountain, the hermit's robe disguise gone for good, exposing the devil's real character. Jesus knew the devil, but he also - more importantly - knew God. Jesus' perfect handling of this situation is our model for the season of Lent. whether we are giving up something or taking on a spiritual discipline. It's worth remembering that we are human and may not handle our own wilderness season as well as Jesus handled his. We do need to resist the temptation to beat ourselves up about that. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...a suggestion for a Lenten discipline
For additional thoughts on Luke 4:1-13, click here.

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